The Epistle of James - Godly Values
Part 12 - Favouritism is law-breaking
20th July 2018
Last time, we read James's exhortation against what the NIV translates as "favouritism" - judging people by externals. In particular, he teaches us not to treat poor people worse than rich people. He now continues this exhortation but, at this point in his letter, he says some things that we have to think about quite carefully. The first is:
The answer to this question is, "Yes, He has". God has chosen poor people to be His children. But God has also chosen some who are rich in the eyes of the world to be His children. This sort of Biblical idea is much misunderstood in our day. James isn't saying, and the Bible doesn't teach, that God only chooses the poor. What was astonishing in the days of the early church was that God included the poor - that he didn't only choose the rich and powerful. God chose the poor as well as the rich.
People from all strata of society are included in God's kingdom, in his church, in His purposes. And since God has chosen people from all strata, we should respect people from all strata. How much money a person has should not affect how we treat him.
How awful that a church can be guilty of insulting the poor! But James asks the churches in his care, "Is it not the rich who are exploiting you?" and this gives us a problem. In England in 2018, the church is not particularly exploited by the rich. It must have been true in the first century, or James wouldn't have asked this rhetorical question, and it may be true in some parts of the world today, but it's not true in western democracies in our generation. Perhaps this is why the Holy Spirit inspired James to frame this as a question, not a statement, because it's not universally true.
In James's day, the rich and the powerful were the same people. Money talked then even more than it does now. There was no democracy in the Roman Empire, no trades unions, no unemployment benefit, no national health service. The rich had all the power then.
In our society, at the moment, some people are dragging Christians into court, and slandering the name of Christ. But we can't simply identify that group of oppressors with the rich. There are some very rich Christians in our society, and there are very many rich people who, while not Christians, have no desire to hurt Christians. And on the other hand, there are people whom we would not describe as rich, who do desire to hurt Christians and to damage Christianity. Those who are dragging you into court and slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong are not simply the rich, but the powerful. They include parts of the media, so-called human rights activists and equality advocates, and other political groups.
There is now a movement in our country to accord fewer rights to Christians than to other sections of society. Christians have been sacked or forced to resign for expressing their beliefs, or for wearing a cross, or for offering to pray with somebody.
Many deny that Christ is God. Many deny that His Holy Word should be respected. Some try to get street preachers arrested, campaign against Christians wearing our crosses at work, prevent us sharing our faith with fellow workers and customers. Some describe us a bigots because we believe the Bible's moral teaching.
Most of these oppressors are not poor. Generally, the bloke off the council estate round the corner isn't dragging us into court. We're not being persecuted by working people; we're being persecuted by the powerful - the ones with a voice, with an organisation and financial backing.
And we must not show favouritism towards the rich or the powerful.
Some Christians would say, "Well, I'm not an adulterer, I'm not a murderer, I'm not a thief, I pay my income tax. I'm a good Christian". But James tells us that if we judge by outward appearances - on the basis of money, or power, or accent, or skin colour, or social status, or clothing, we are law breakers. You think you're better than a murderer or a thief, but are you?
Suppose you've been arrested for murder. There's no point in standing before the court and saying, "Well, I didn't steal". If you're a law breaker, you're a law breaker. James is not saying that all sins are equally bad. It doesn't take much thought to realize that genocide is worse than shoplifting, that killing two people is worse than killing one. But he is saying that if we want to judge people for breaking God's law, then we'd better check that we're not prejudiced against blacks, or whites, or the Chinese, or the poor, or the rich, or the Anglican, or the Catholic, or the Atheist or the Moslem.
We should judge by the heart. because God judges by the heart, not by the outward appearance.